Why Is My Wife (Or Husband) Depressed?
March 1990

“Why Is My Wife (Or Husband) Depressed?” Ensign, Mar. 1990, 27

Strengthening Marriage

Why Is My Wife (Or Husband) Depressed?

Nancy works overtime at trying to make other people happy, including her husband and children, but in recent weeks she has felt discouraged. Activities she used to accomplish on a daily basis now seem overwhelming. Just looking at a sink of dishes gives her a sense of exhaustion and despair. She lacks the affection she used to feel for her husband and loved ones and spends more and more time hiding in her bedroom. “I’m not worthy of anyone’s love,” she thinks, “not even of Heavenly Father’s.”

Nancy suffers from symptoms of depression. But obviously, she does not suffer alone. Also affected are the members of her family, particularly her husband. The spouse of a depressed wife or husband often feels frustrated, resentful, and confused, wondering why his or her mate can’t “snap out of it” by doing something productive or fun.

To a spouse able to control mood swings, depression may seem like an intangible state that should be pushed aside. But if your spouse is depressed—and there are millions who are—identifying, understanding, and then dealing with depression as an illness may be vital to the survival of your marriage. One of the most common questions depressed people ask their counselors is, “Can you please help my husband (or wife) understand what is happening to me?” They wonder why they can’t suffer with a physically obvious illness so that those close to them will understand their pain.

Only if a spouse understands depression—what it is, what causes it, what can help—can he or she help in the healing process. If you suspect or know that your spouse is suffering from depression or excessive mood swings, the following information can help you deal constructively with the problem.

How to Recognize if Your Spouse Is Depressed

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least 15 percent of all adults between the ages of eighteen and seventy-four will suffer the effects of depression at some time in their lives. The probability of experiencing a major depression is even greater for women than for men. While all of us experience ups and downs, the severely depressed usually exhibit a number of more severe symptoms.

Emotionally, does your spouse talk about deep feelings of hopelessness and despair? Does he or she cry often or express a sense of guilt and unworthiness? For the depressed, the most basic requirements of life seem overwhelming and frightening. They live under a constant melancholy that prevents them from feeling pleasure and excitement. Self-hate may result, making the sufferer resent himself or herself and others.

Mentally, has your spouse experienced changes in his or her ability to think and understand? In addition to emotional distress, depressed individuals often report concentration and memory problems, often believing that they have a brain disorder. Is it extremely difficult for your spouse to make decisions? This inability may make him or her feel incompetent and contributes to a sense of mental instability.

Socially, have you noticed a pronounced difference in the way your spouse deals with others? Does he or she fear social activities? Living with a sense of imminent failure, the depressed individual often avoids people or activities that are reminders of failure. He or she retreats to solitude, sleep, alcohol, or other ways of avoiding the world.

Physically, has your spouse experienced changes in his or her sleeping and eating habits along with a decrease in physical energy? For those who are depressed, the body actually goes into a depressed state—not just an attitude, but a physical illness. Coordination between the mind and body slows, resulting in difficulty with tasks previously performed with ease. In other cases, marked agitation and nervousness result. Your spouse may find it difficult to express affection the way he or she once did.

Finally, does your spouse exhibit self-destructive tendencies? This type of behavior is the most frightening symptom of a person suffering from depression or extreme mood swings because it could ultimately lead to suicide. Although his or her religious beliefs and family commitment help in resisting these impulses, the sufferer may arrive at a point where death seems the only permanent escape from constant misery.

Recognizing the symptoms of depression can not only lead to your spouse finding help, but can also prevent a tragedy.

Why Is My Spouse Depressed?

Understanding the causes of depression can help you avoid blaming yourself or your spouse for conditions that are often beyond your control. It also helps you in finding appropriate treatment for your spouse’s illness. Many causes of depression have been isolated—some biological and some emotional.

Among the multiple causes for depression, genetic vulnerability is receiving increased attention. Are there other members of your spouse’s extended family, or in the ancestral line, who suffer from depression or mood swings? Bipolar depression, in which people experience extreme mood changes, is often rooted in a biochemical defect that affects the way the brain transmits messages, particularly in the mood centers of the brain. Is it possible your spouse has inherited this disorder?

Medical conditions can also account for depression and mood changes. Does your spouse suffer from untreated diabetes, thyroid problems, or side effects of certain medications? Women undergoing cyclic hormonal changes are also susceptible to mood changes.

Traumatic events early in your spouse’s life may trigger emotional reactions in his or her adult life. Has your spouse been vulnerable in his or her past to trauma, abuse, or neglect? Does he or she sometimes treat your marriage relationship like a parent-child relationship, exhibiting unreasonable fears of being abandoned, punished, or humiliated? Inappropriate reactions toward you as a spouse may indicate earlier abuse or trauma.

Significant life events can also lead to depression. Has your spouse undergone the death of a loved one, an earlier divorce, the loss of employment, or a financial reversal? Some evidence shows that after the body has experienced the effects of stress for a long period of time, burnout and depression can result.

Long-standing personality traits can also contribute to depression. Does your spouse have a tendency to exploit others or avoid life by threatening suicide? Often, individuals who seek a martyred, suffering existence find themselves victims of severe depression.

Although the causes are varied, the causes appear to result in the common syndrome of depression—a state different from the mood swings we all undergo. If your spouse experiences a depressive state for at least two weeks and could be vulnerable to these and other causes, take the condition seriously.

What Kind of Help Does My Spouse Need?

Depression can be helped. The support of Church members, family, and friends is invaluable. However, because so many causes exist, a variety of treatments are often necessary as well. Your spouse will probably require medical treatment, psychological counseling, or a combination of the two.

If there is a history of depression in your spouse’s family, or if your spouse experiences extreme mood swings (bipolar depression), medical treatment should be considered. Several types of antidepressant medications have proven helpful and can be obtained through medical consultation. These forms of medication do not typically produce dependencies and can be life-saving drugs to some people. However, allow two weeks before expecting to see any positive effects.

While biological depressions respond best to medication, the majority of mood disorders do not appear to be biologically based. They are best helped by counseling and by the assistance of family, friends, and neighbors. Often, a depressed person holds mental attitudes and beliefs that lead to expectations of catastrophe. For example, if your spouse believes that he or she is walking through a mine field and could be killed at any moment, being told that there really are no mines does not lessen his or her anxiety level.

Often, the right counselor, along with concerned family and friends, can help your spouse to see life differently and to abandon self-defeating expectations of perfection that lead to a sense of imminent disaster.

What Can I Do to Help My Spouse?

Depression takes a toll on marriage. The more constructively and lovingly you approach the situation, the better your spouse can recover. A recent study showed that when people close to the patient show hostility and criticism, recovery is slow. You can help your spouse improve significantly by taking the following action.

  1. If your spouse is severely depressed for more than two weeks, help him or her to find professional help. This is critical if self-destructive tendencies indicate a risk of suicide.

  2. Help your spouse to understand his or her mistaken, self-defeating beliefs and see the world more realistically. Listen sincerely. Your spouse must feel safe in opening up to you before you can discover any misguided beliefs.

  3. Be patient and understanding of your spouse’s fears and anxieties. Refrain from judging. What may seem easy to you may seem monumental or life-threatening to your spouse.

  4. Encourage your spouse to become involved with the Church’s network of caring people. Church members and leaders can help with physical tasks, can listen with empathy, can help in overcoming irrational guilt, and can encourage participation in exercise programs and other helpful activities.

  5. Utilize Church programs that could help your spouse: personal and financial counseling, employment and domestic skills training, and religious counseling to overcome the effects of sin, when that is applicable. Overcome your pride and allow people to help your spouse—and you.

  6. Always remind your spouse of God’s unconditional love, especially when he or she feels abandoned.

Relationships are often a fragile thread that can be frayed by a shift in the balance of giving, receiving, loving, and understanding between two people. If you sense that depression has caused just such a shift in your marriage, prayerfully seek inspiration in all that you do. And remember, recovery is possible.

  • David G. Weight teaches psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the Young Men president in the Edgemont Sixteenth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.

Photography by Steve Bunderson